Reporting from Tehran and Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Tens of thousands of opposition supporters today took to the streets of Qom, Iran's main theological center, to mourn the passing of the country's top dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died at age 87 late Saturday.
Witnesses described a steady procession of mourners in Qom walking from Montazeri's home to the shrine of Fatemeh Masoumeh, where he was laid to rest. Despite the presence of security forces, many chanted anti-government slogans and carried green ribbons and banners signifying allegiance to the opposition movement that sprang out of Iran's disputed June presidential elections.
As the ceremony concluded, Montazeri's son, Ahmad, asked mourners to disperse peacefully out of respect for the family. But there were a few reports of clashes between mourners and the security forces that had flooded the city, 90 miles south of the capital.
According to reformist news websites, pro-government militiamen ripped down a funerary banner honoring Montazeri.
Several hundred government supporters chanting slogans in support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gathered near Montazeri's home, according to news websites. Uniformed law enforcement intervened to prevent clashes between government supporters and mourners, some throwing stones.
Official Iranian media has given limited coverage to Montazeri's death and potentially volatile funeral and mourning ceremonies. They coincide uncannily with the end of annual Muharram commemorations of the slain 7th century Shiite Muslim martyr Imam Hussein, which have been slated as a period of confrontation between the government and the opposition.
"It was a very timely demise," said an aide to opposition figurehead Mehdi Karroubi, who attended the ceremony along with fellow presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. He asked that his name not be published. "The grand ayatollah passed away at the zenith of his reputation among middle class and educated people of Iran."
Montazeri supporters and opposition activists began pouring into the shrine city Sunday, many arriving from the senior cleric's hometown of Najafabad.
From 8 a.m. on, cries of, "Death to the dictator," and "Ya Hussein! Mir Hussein!" in support of opposition figurehead and presidential candidate Mousavi, could be heard from around his home, according to witnesses and amateur video footage posted online.
Wrapped in black cloth and mounted atop a truck also draped in black, his body emerged around 9 a.m. to be slowly taken to the shrine and buried next to his late son Mohammad, killed in a bomb blast in the early years after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, witnesses said.
The cries of chanting mourners overwhelmed the officially sanctioned slogans condemning the United States and supporting Khamenei, who had offered his condolences Sunday to Montazeri's family, blasting out of loudspeakers positioned near the shrine, witnesses said.
"The green nation of Iran is in mourning," they chanted, many dressed in green and holding green ribbons. "The oppressed Montazeri is before God."
The most striking image was of young female mourners wearing colorful and trendy waistcoats instead of all-covering black chadors attempting to enter the shrine grounds in violation of religious traditions.
Montazeri, an architect of Iran's 1979 revolution and the man first designated as successor to its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, fell out of the Islamic Republic's inner circle after his criticism of the mass killing of prisoners in the late 1980s. He eventually became Iran's leading clerical dissident, and in recent months began stridently questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and Khamenei.
Observers said he had a unique intellect that permitted him to change his views over the decade and admit he had been dramatically wrong about core issues of Islamic law, politics and faith.
Supporters predicted that Montazeri's death would eventually help the opposition grow stronger.
"I think his demise has galvanized the movement," said Mohammad Aghazadeh, a reformist journalist who attended the ceremony.
"It is gaining roots," he said. "People from the middle class who are not mosque-goers or pilgrims of Qom are here among the youth. It shows the Green movement is spreading among all walks of society."
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.